The following is the second in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.
©2020 Loren C. Steffy
The rains began falling on Houston on August 25, 2017. Further down the coast, near Corpus Christi, a major hurricane with sustained winds of one hundred twenty miles an hour slammed ashore. Houston had endured its share of hurricanes and tropical storms, but Hurricane Harvey was different. The storm didn’t leave. For five days, Harvey wobbled around central Texas, and its outer rain bands never departed from Houston’s skies. The killer storm unleashed thirty-four trillion gallons of rainfall, more than any storm in U.S. history. One part of the city got almost fifty-two inches, and the average for the area—roughly the size of New Jersey—was more than forty inches.
Houston was built on a flat, coastal plain intercut with bayous. As the deluge persisted, those bayous began to rise. Streets flooded, then yards flooded, and eventually, tens of thousands of homes flooded. When the waters finally receded, Houston faced an unprecedented crisis.
Within days, damage estimates exceeded one hundred ninety billion dollars, making Harvey by far the costliest storm ever—more than the expense of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. AccuWeather estimated the destruction would shave 1 percent from the country’s gross domestic product.
Parts of Houston remained uninhabitable for months. Tens of thousands of homes across the state were destroyed and hundreds of thousands sustained some sort of damage. Even before the skies cleared, Houston, a city known for its resilience, began talking about how it would rebuild.
“Harvey can be characterized as the largest housing disaster in the U.S.,” said Marvin Odum, the former Shell Oil president who served as Houston’s chief recovery officer. In all, an estimated three hundred thousand homes were damaged or destroyed, creating a need for labor to rebuild on a massive scale.
For Stan Marek, the question wasn’t how, but who. With the construction industry already struggling under a labor shortage, who would do the work of rebuilding Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast? With the passage of the state law banning sanctuary cities just months before the storm hit, the construction industry in Houston already was seeing its workforce decline. Many Latinos, both documented and undocumented, fled Texas amid growing concern that local police would start rounding up immigrants.
The state was scaring away the very workers Houston and other coastal cities battered by Harvey required to rebuild. Restoration of the Gulf Coast, Stan knew, would depend on an alternative to deportations, walls, and hateful rhetoric. It would need to draw on the large number of undocumented workers already in the city and the state.
“We need to find a way to bring those people out of the shadows, to allow them to work and to pay taxes, while they work on coming to some position of legal status,” Odum said. “When you try to recover from something like Harvey, over a period of the next several years, that’s an enormous surge of activity. As far as I’m concerned, we need all hands on deck.”
Stan recalled the response to Tropical Storm Allison, the closest thing in modern history to Harvey that Houston had seen. That storm had dumped twenty-seven inches of rain on Houston in twenty-four hours in 2001, causing nine billion dollars in damage. Thousands of workers, many undocumented, flocked to the city to help with the rebuilding. Their efforts were welcomed, with few questions asked about their immigration status.
Sixteen years later, however, Texas was far less accommodating to the undocumented, even in the state’s time of need. While the sanctuary cities ban had been temporarily blocked by the courts in late summer of 2017, the sentiment was clear: undocumented workers weren’t welcome.
“I need a legal way to be able to access that workforce,” Odum said. That didn’t mean giving all workers blanket legal status, but at least giving them temporary status so they could work legally without fear of deportation.
As Texas struggled to find recruits for the rebuilding effort, construction demand was rising in other states. Workers in other cities had less reason to come to Houston to help with rebuilding, especially since in many states, wages are higher than they are in Texas.
Stan viewed the Harvey recovery, with its need for additional construction workers, as an opportunity to change the tone of the immigration debate. In a guest column for the Houston Chronicle in September 2017, he called for granting the six hundred thousand undocumented workers in Houston some type of legal status immediately. Other local business leaders supported his “ID and Tax” plan, calling for workers to be identified and put on company payrolls where their wages would be taxed as required of all full-time employees. Immigrants may have helped rebuild Houston after Allison, but many were taken advantage of by labor brokers. This time, Stan vowed, it would be different.
ID and Tax wouldn’t be carte-blanche amnesty. In exchange for legal status, immigrant workers would consent to a background check and get a tamper-proof photo ID. Once the government determined they had committed no felonies, they would work for a sponsoring employer who agreed to cover their payroll taxes and provide accident insurance. The plan was similar to how current work visas already are handled.
Stan remains determined to reverse the system of exploitation and abuse that holds back immigrants and hurts his industry. He seeks a rational policy that will bring the country’s more than eleven million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the mainstream economy. Stan reiterates the logic behind his thinking every chance he gets. These immigrants cannot vote or receive welfare, yet they work as productive members of society. Many have been illegally in the U.S. for decades and are as much a part of the landscape as legal citizens. Americans have already invested billions of dollars in educating their children. By identifying these illegal immigrants and taxing them for working in the United States, governments will add more money to public coffers, improve wages and working conditions, and ensure the workers have needed protections without fearing deportation.
If Stan has his way, immigration reform would involve several key steps, starting with the DREAM Act. Since 2001, Congress has flirted with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which, like DACA, would grant conditional residency for undocumented minors. If these immigrants meet additional qualifications, the act would create the opportunity for them to achieve permanent residency. The U.S. House approved a version of the bill in 2010, but the Senate came up five votes short. After the measure failed to pass, President Obama in 2012 signed the executive order creating DACA. (DACA and the DREAM Act are similar in their intent—protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation—but as an executive order, DACA could be undone as Obama’s successor tried to do. The DREAM Act would codify the protections as law.1)
Stan would take the DREAM Act one step further. He would extend its provisions of conditional and eventual permanent residency not just to children, but to their five million parents. Under his proposal, undocumented adults would receive legal status for three years and a work permit giving them time to begin meeting the requirements for permanent resident status. Essentially, employers would sponsor adult DREAMers until they achieved legal status, ensuring that most of the applicants for the program had a job.
DACA and the Temporary Protected Status program, which allows workers to stay in the United States on a temporary basis for employment purposes, provide similar, if temporary, protections from deportation, allowing immigrants to remain and work in the United States. ID and Tax would take a similar approach but make those protections ongoing on a renewable basis that would be reviewed every three years.
Of course, this provision only works if the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor cooperate to ensure that employers hire workers as full-time employees and deduct taxes from their paychecks, rather than classifying them as independent contractors. Currently, the two agencies share little information. By forming a joint task force to address immigration, they could increase compliance for both taxes and working conditions, giving immigrants a process for reporting violations without fearing deportation. At the same time, the measure would increase federal tax revenue.
Stan’s plan requires the Department of Homeland Security to complete thorough background checks on immigrants already in the country and develop a secure, tamper-proof form of identification rather than the easily forged Social Security card. Providing an ID to every immigrant who is in the United States illegally would allow the government to know who they are and where they live. In addition, allowing them to get a driver’s license would give immigrants greater mobility, helping reduce regional labor shortages without compromising security. Many illegal immigrants in Texas, for instance, are afraid to leave the state because they can’t get a driver’s license.
“That would be a step that brings people to conventional legal employment relationships,” said Mark Erlich, with Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “It’s a positive step for those workers, for the industry, and for taxpayers as a whole. It takes these workers out of the shadows, so that they have the rights that go along with being an employee, which include the right to a minimum wage, the right to overtime payments, the right to anti-discrimination laws, the right to form union organizations, all of those rights come along with being an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you have none of those rights. You’re basically on your own.”
Stan’s plan would direct ICE to stop auditing employers. He says the current system punishes them twice—once by forcing them to fire workers and then again when disreputable competitors hire the workers their former employers trained. The agency should instead work with the IRS to ensure that undocumented workers are properly identified and taxed.
Once those basic objectives are in place, Stan wants Congress to develop a path to legal status for all immigrants who are already in the United States. Critics call it amnesty, but deporting millions of workers who contribute to the economy would create a huge labor shortage in industries including construction. That in turn could cause escalating prices for homes, offices, and other real estate, Stan contends. Multiplied across agriculture, meat packing, and other immigrant-dominated business, the economic fallout becomes profound.
Finally, the plan requires that both U.S. borders be secured by reasonable means. He suggested neither a physical wall nor a metaphorical wall of fear and intimidation. Instead he’s proposing a systematic monitoring that takes advantage of new, more affordable technology such as drones and motion sensors. The system would identify all workers and require entry into the E-Verify system. At the same time, employers would be required to pay all employment taxes on them.
The plan represents a feasible compromise that preserves border integrity while addressing the economic realities of immigration and providing the millions of undocumented workers a way out of the shadows, Stan said.
With Trump’s election, Stan realized he’d have to scale back before he’d even had a chance to widely promote the plan he still believes in. The president had been in office only seven months when Harvey struck and Houston clamored to rebuild, but Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric had poisoned the chance for rational debate, let alone adoption of Stan’s sweeping immigration proposals. By late 2017, Stan worried that any plan creating the possibility for millions of undocumented workers to become citizens would derail any attempts at reform. Instead, he regrouped around two crucial and specific tenets of his initiative: “ID and Tax.”
These provisions would identify undocumented immigrants already in the country and create a legal protection for them to work, ensuring that they pay taxes. The initiative would reduce many of the abuses endured by immigrant workers, allow them to work and remain in the country without fear of deportation. Because the government would have their personal information on file, security concerns would be reduced as well.
“If they’ve been here more than five years, they get an ID, and they get entered in the E-Verify system,” Stan said. “Then they go to work for an employer who puts them on the payroll and pays taxes. If employers don’t comply, the workers have recourse in the courts or with the government.”
Those provisions alone, Stan argues, would change the nature of the immigration debate. His program would remove employers’ excuses that paying undocumented workers overtime and benefits would be too expensive and cause companies to lose projects. If all employers faced the same requirements, the competitive landscape would be more level than it is now, Stan argues. He has a project in mind for testing his system: “If Trump is serious about building a wall, then let’s take the workers who are here, ID them, and let them build the wall.” He was only half joking.
Distrust would undoubtedly linger, but by providing a path to legal status, undocumented workers already in the U.S. would be able to secure a driver’s license, open a bank account, and participate openly in their communities. Law enforcement could again rely on immigrant neighborhoods to help with community policing and doctors and nurses would have access to reliable medical records on the immigrant patients they were treating. Immigrant parents would no longer fear being arrested by ICE agents if they show up at their children’s schools.
“Employers like myself would find the employees we need to rebuild this city—not with the labor that will be exploited because of immigration status, but with legal workers paying taxes and protected with insurance,” Stan wrote in the Chronicle in the fall of 2017.
It wasn’t the full-scale reform that Stan had long yearned for, but it would be a good first step. Without the help of illegal immigrants, Texas’s recovery would likely be painful and protracted.
Houston is a city eager to embrace its rebirth and its long history of welcoming immigrants could represent a turning point. As the 2020 hurricane season dawned, a reporter called Stan and asked him if the city had the workforce it needed to recover from another major storm. Stan’s answer was immediate: No. Not even close. The rebuilding effort from Harvey was still dragging on because of labor shortages the last time. Stan, however, continues to hope that Houston’s inclusiveness and vibrant immigrant community will seed a solution to America’s long-deficient immigration policies. And with those advantages—bolstered by rational debate and thoughtful action—might also come hope for the future of the construction industry. It’s a goal to which Stan Marek, like his father before him, has devoted his life.
To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.